|Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Emperor of New York (Beauty and the Beast)
by Julie Baumgold
For those who enter the park at first light when the dogs of the city are allowed to run free it is not an unusual sight to see a small slightly stooped man pushing a baby carriage and holding a young boy with his other hand.
Most of the baby carriages at this hour contain elderly dogs that are taken out, plopped on the grass to do their business and then put back onto their cushions. This man has an infant in his carriage, a little girl.
The children are taken upstairs and there no mother awaits. The boy's mother is dead and the infant's mother is absent as she always has been.
The man, Walter Gabriel, is almost eighty, old to be the father of such young children but he provides for them with his love and his fortune. Aside from them, the only things sacred to him are his art collection and his word in business, sometimes.
Walter Gabriel has been widely disliked in the city for his harsh business dealings and his mistreatment of some of his numerous underlings. When he appeared in his offices, workers would vanish into unoccupied conference rooms or look thoroughly busy at their Macs. Though he is known to be charitable, there is no sweetness to Walter Gabriel's soul.
As they saw him suffer when his boy got very sick, the kinder people of the city forgave him many of his sins. Still, there were some who considered him a monster for conceiving a second child and never permitting this child to know her mother.
"He is too old. He bought himself a baby," many said. This was not unusual at all, they should have known better just looking around at all the little Chinese girls being wheeled around by mature Caucasian parents. Also this was his own child, but people usually enjoy having as much as they can to hold against a very rich man.
The boy recovered and began school and the girl, Seraphine, grew into a child as sweet and soft as she was pretty. Her nanny Susanna read her stories of families unlike hers and old fairy tales in which she sometimes found herself.
"Do I have a mother? Where is she?" she asked as soon as she could speak.
Mr. Gabriel had prepared Susanna for this moment and she told the girl to ask her father when he returned from his trip. It seemed that he was always away on a trip, for that was what it meant to run an empire, which, like many another, was farflung.
"Todd, where is my mother?" she asked her brother.
"How should I know. I only know that my mother died."
"Is my mother alive? What did Papa say when I came here to live? Am I adopted?"
"All I know is that you are my real sister but we have different mothers. The same father, old Papa."
"Yes, he is very old. I will ask him when he comes back. I hope he remembered my present."
"You always ask him for the same thing, another stupid plant."
"I love my plants," and indeed she did. Her father had commissioned a greenhouse nursery next to her bedroom in the penthouse where they lived and together they had filled it with every rare plant they could find. Susanna was a botanist and helped her care for them in the proper way tying them to stakes and prying apart the root balls for transplants. Already Seraphine knew that she wanted to be a gardener when she grew up. Her favorite place in the world was the Botanical Gardens.
At this very moment her father, driving a car by himself for a change, was on his way to the Blue Flower Farm in Connecticut. It was a dangerous place for him to be because its owner, Laurie Holt, spent her nights, which were long with tossing and roaming, planning how she might eliminate Walter Gabriel, regain her child, and not be caught.
"My sweet Lord, thank you Buddha!" she thought when she saw him get out of the car.
It was a quiet day, her workers were off in various sections of the nursery and she was alone in the office.
She remembered the afternoon Walter and his team of gardeners had come to buy terrace plants from the failing nursery and the way he had looked at her, considering her carefully and her degrees on the office wall. Then he had made his devil's proposition.
It was the time when his son was most sick and might not live. He wanted her to have his child, another being who, if stem cells or bone marrow were needed, would have a better than average chance of a match to his son. Of course tissue typing—cell surface immune matching—would be necessary to establish how close the donor cells were to the recipient's. It was also a question of inheritance, him being Walter Gabriel.
Laurie Holt gave him her egg and her womb and her child and he saved the nursery and her sick mother and the house where they lived in Poverty Hollow.
"She is well," he said when he walked in the door and the bells attached to the frame jingled loudly.
He came alone, she thought, to keep this a secret. All her fancy plans vanished at the sight of him weaving through the counters of seed packets and seedlings and catalogues. He was wearing a long scarf that dragged on the floor picking up shavings and spores and nuggets of dirt.
"Be careful!" What she meant was—the scarf, the scarf, the rake there, the rake, thank you, karma, at last! Because he tripped and there was a tangle and a bit of blood where his head hit and he was in her power before he had said a word about why he came which was for her to sign a new harsher version of their agreement. Before she knew it, there was a little old man with dyed hair in a wheelbarrow on the way to her truck.
His eyes were open but he could not seem to speak. They passed Danbury Hospital and also the Women's Federal Prison which gave her pause and then they were on the Black Rock Turnpike. Laurie Holt pulled her truck into the deserted picnic area of Israel Putnam State Park, climbed into the back and raised the tarpaulin on Walter Gabriel's terrible soundless stare. His eyes were black with fury and his hands were shaking.
"I want my daughter back and only when you agree will I let you live. If you need her stem cells or bone marrow for your boy I'll arrange for that. If you give me your word, I'll take you right to the hospital. If you go back on it, I will find her and tell her that I am her mother and no security you have will keep me away."
Laurie thought she saw tears on his face—of pain or anger? She wiped them with her dirt filled gardener's hand.
No one knew where Walter Gabriel was, he was helpless for the first time in his adult life, disconnected from his devices, at her disposal. His position, when he was able to think about it, was very gothic. He was supposed to blink if he agreed and gave his word. And he blinked and kept on blinking dirty tears as she drove him back to the hospital.
Instead of smothering him, she saved him by keeping him warm and quiet on the way.
When Walter returned to the penthouse, presumably healed, and with a truck load of plants following, he brought Seraphine a lovely lady in a flowery dress and told her that he had found her true mother.
They were all out in the greenhouse and the lady took her by her hand and they walked through the steamy air among the plants and her mother told her all she knew about them which was even more than Susanna and then she told her where she lived in Connecticut and asked if she would like to visit her and see her nursery.
It must be said that Seraphine did not like her school and the girls there and the one little boy named Alan who had invited her to the sink during playtime and forced her hand under the tap running scalding water. Papa had made sure that Alan would no longer be in her school and Susanna had rushed her to the doctor but she had wanted a mother to be there to hold and comfort her and not Susanna who was kind but rather English in her demeanor and not especially maternal. She was very surprised and happy to have a mother, however sudden and without any excuse for her reappearance among the vaporous plants of the nursery.
"Is it all right, Papa?"
"Yes," said Walter Gabriel whose eyes bored into Laurie Holt above Seraphine's fair head.
"You can go for your Christmas vacation."
Then Seraphine was especially happy because she did not like the yacht where there was nothing to do except be seasick and watch Papa and his friends have lunch for four hours, all of them with their phones on the table.
The nursery was all she might have imagined and the house in Poverty Hollow, restored with Gabriel money, was large and comfortable and all the good things about old. At this home there was a moss garden and a rock garden and a large potting shed filled with plant stakes and trug baskets and old clay pots whitened with mold and age. She did not especially miss her brother Todd or Susanna. She thought of her father as that man on Skype, his features magnified into ugliness, giving her news and instructions. His nose and mouth and ears were so big and different. His voice was hollow and dim. Her mother was a rose of many sweet petals unfolding daily. Seraphine had her own plot at the nursery and was already thinking of bringing some plants back from Fifth Avenue for the Spring.
Now Walter Gabriel walked alone in the park when there was almost no light. Todd was sleeping at home, he had no dog, only his bleak moods for company. A few people recognized him and would turn to stare. He wore a dark coat flapping open on his business suit. One morning he started to mutter and the mutterings continued. Then, even when they did not know who he was, the early morning walkers and runners would turn to look. Had he spoken to them? Was he crazy? He looked too well-dressed to be crazy.
"Walter!" said a woman he had known for forty years, "What are you doing out this early?"
He had no idea who she was and so he stooped to pet her little dog. Dogs did not like him in general, something he also forgot until the dog gave his warning growl.
"Humphrey! Bad dog!" said the woman.
"Good to see you!" Walter said and walked quickly on to the boat lake.
He sat on a bench and fell asleep until he felt the vibration of his phone. Fran from his New York office was calling about his first appointment which he had missed.
He had not felt quite right since the Danbury Hospital "episode", that was how he thought of it. Walter began to examine himself, pressing here and there on his body.
He considered his life and his children. Though Todd was his child conceived with a woman he had loved, he knew he did not love him as he did Seraphine. That had started when Todd was sick and Walter had prepared himself to lose him. Then the love he sent away had not come back for Todd but transferred itself to Seraphine. Now Seraphine was gone. Unfortunately Walter Gabriel was saying all these thoughts aloud in a very strong voice, his famous voice of command, a voice just short of yelling.
One of his executives had told him not to yell or he would quit. "The only person who can yell at me is my wife," the man had said.
Walter smiled as he remembered this and fell off the bench.
A small group had gathered during his tirade to himself. A man rushed forward and took his pulse and looked into his surprised eyes. Others were calling 9-1-1. Somehow medics rushed to him from both the 76th and 72nd Street entrances converging over his body in a welter of equipment. He was already getting up, brushing himself off, and resuming his usual stance of arrogant command.
"I'm fine. Just had a moment."
He would not let the teams approach. The bewilderment had left his face, replaced by his regular expression, trapped between a scowl and a glare, with a tight smile breaking through whenever he told a joke. He told jokes frequently to escape from moments of ill ease. He was about to tell one now, only he could not remember any. He started to walk away, heading uphill, with all of them calling after him. His left hand hung down and he made as though to reach for Todd's hand.
He had a hard time getting up the slight hill to 76th street and from there he took a taxi to his home, had his driver pay, dismissed him for the day, and decided to get into bed. Against his wishes, Susanna called his doctor before she took Todd to school and told one of the housekeepers to look out for him.
This was difficult to do for Mr. Gabriel liked his home run so that things appeared as though from the unseen hands of an enchanted castle. When Maria went to peek, he was not in the bed. She began running through the rooms until she saw his silhouette in the greenhouse leaning against the pimples of moisture on the glass walls and then slumping down in a smear of moist heat against the wall.
Maria had never been in the greenhouse, she had never actually spoken to Mr. Gabriel for she was new. The people who worked in the house were always new, it seemed, and had been instructed about remaining invisible and soundless. She had to enter and touch him now and call, but not scream, for help. Soon enough the doctor was there.
Yes there was the head and the rake, that injury, but there was also a matter of the heart when Seraphine, conceived as a replacement child, went to her mother pulling something out of him.
Seraphine looked at his face on the screen that night. She could not help but compare her old Papa and her blooming almost young mother, now so happy and complete.
She would have to return to him. The car was already in the driveway waiting for her and her suitcases.
As long as Walter Gabriel lived, which was only a few months longer, Seraphine stayed by his side and never forgot, no matter what, to bring him a flower for his bedside every morning and evening.
Saturday, January 2, 2016